Jon Johnston

How I Use Stockdale’s Paradox To Get Past Bad Days

Photo by Aashish R Gautam on Unsplash

On August 2015, I suffered a widowmaker heart attack which left me dead for 20 minutes. The event left me with a traumatic brain injury and with that comes debilitating fatigue and severe headaches. I have learned how to use mindfulness, meditation, naps, exercise, journaling, and other tools to manage my maladies. I feel I’ve come a long way; I have recovered much of my life, considering what I’ve been through.

Unfortunately, there are days where everything goes to hell. I have an awful night of sleep and feel terrible when I wake up in the morning. I become overstressed about a problem I can’t solve. I have an argument with someone close to me and can’t let it go. These are typical of a day gone to hell.

Despite my best attempts to recover the day, fatigue overtakes me. Headache pain overwhelms me and I find myself unable to think. I become nonfunctional. If it gets severe, I can’t stand to look at any light, which means I can’t even look at my phone. That’s when you know it’s bad — the one addiction we all share as human beings, and I can’t even take part.

In the past, I would try to power through my fatigue and headache pain. This is a terrible idea, as it would result in having two bad days in a row instead of just one. I’ve realized that it’s better to just write the day off as lost productivity and rest rather than push myself.

Losing a day like that is difficult because I consider myself to be a very productive person. I have many things I want to accomplish and wasting doesn’t fit into my plan. I’ve mostly learned to forgive myself for wasted days, but I can get caught up in self-pity.

When that happens, I wish that my life would have ended. It’s too difficult to go on, and no one would miss me. I see myself as a burden and I wish I were done. There’s an attitude that we’re supposed to be constantly positive. It’s a nice concept, but for many of us, completely unrealistic. The reality is that the battle that some fight daily is so difficult that we need to give ourselves a break from positivity once in a while.

I need something that will drag me out of my malaise. It is then I remember Admiral James Stockdale and Stockdale’s Paradox.

Jim Collins wrote a book, “Good to Great”, in which he interviewed Admiral James Stockdale. Stockdale was a naval aviator who was a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War. He was tortured throughout his captivity, which lasted from 1965 to 1971. Collins had read “In Love And War”, a book Stockdale and his wife had written about getting through his years as a POW. Collins stated the book depressed him even though he knew the ending; that Stockdale makes it out alive and reunites with his family.

During his interview, Collins asks Stockdale how he held on and made it home:

If it feels depressing for me, how on earth did he deal with it when he was actually there and did not know the end of the story?”

“I never lost faith in the end of the story,” he said, when I asked him. “I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.”

Collins also asked Stockdale about the prisoners who didn’t live to make it out of Vietnam. Stockdale’s answer:

“Oh, that’s easy,” he said. “The optimists.”

“The optimists? I don’t understand,” I said, now completely confused, given what he’d said 100 meters earlier.

“The optimists? Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ and Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ and Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”

Stockdale continued with a line that defined what Collins called, “Stockdale’s Paradox”:

“You must never confuse faith you will prevail in the end — which you can never afford to lose — with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they may be.”

The brutal fact is that life changed forever the day I died. No matter how hard I fight, no matter what I try, I will never be the same. I will live with the effects of that day forever. My brain is damaged. Part of my heart is dead. It took years for me to accept I can’t change that reality.

I remember Stockdale’s Paradox when the bad days come, so I don’t become disheartened about the future. If James Stockdale could endure years of torture and uncertainty, I can endure one bad day. I can make it to tomorrow, wake up, and start a new day with hope it will be better.

Stockdale’s comment regarding turning his captivity into the defining event in his life and that he wouldn’t trade it is noteworthy. I have told myself over and over I wouldn’t let my death define me, yet here I am, writing about it repeatedly. I have reclaimed much of my life. Others who have experienced extreme trauma haven’t fared as well. I feel an obligation to tell others how I recovered, so perhaps they can too.

Would I trade my death were a genie to show, granting me wishes? Only a madman would say no. My memories are shattered; how I would love to regain all my memories of my children growing up. It would be heaven on earth if I didn’t have constant headache pain. I could do math again.

Unfortunately, the idea I can change my life is a fantasy and to pursue such a fantasy is folly. It only leads to more heartbreak. I can waste time hoping magic will happen or I can have new experiences and through them gain new memories to replace those that are gone. It’s best I accept my death event as a brutal fact and move on as to not waste any more time on the debate.

I find Stockdale’s Paradox inspirational. It’s not about a Hallmark Movie. It’s about a person who went through hell and came out the other side damaged, but better than before. That’s what I want to do.

I hope you can do it too.

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